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‘This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression’ by Daphne Merkin ****

This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression is, says its blurb, Daphne Merkin’s ‘rare, vividly personal account of what it feels like to suffer from clinical depression.’  This Close to Happy is Merkin’s fourth book, following two works of non-fiction and a novel.  Memoirs and illness narratives such as this have been rather popular in recent years, and are, I feel, incredibly important tools for helping those who do not suffer with depression or linked mental illnesses to empathise with those who do.  I am in the former camp in this respect, but know a lot of people who have struggled, or are struggling, with various forms of depression and anxiety, and want to ensure that I can be as well informed as to what others are going through every day as is possible.

There is still a stigma and a taboo about mental illnesses such as depression, and Merkin sees the importance of being as transparent as she can in her account, in order to show that one cannot simply ‘man up’ or ‘pull oneself together’; depression is as serious and life-threatening a condition as a lot of physical ailments.  Of this, she writes: ‘In spite of our everything-goes, tell-all culture, so much of the social realm is closed against too much real personal disclosure…  We live in a society that is embarrassed by interiority…’.

9780374140366Merkin has been hospitalised numerous times, most poignantly in grade school for childhood depression, for the postpartum depression which she suffered when she had her daughter Zoe, and following the death of her mother, when she suffered with ‘obsessive suicidal thinking’.  From the very beginning, Merkin is as honest as she can possibly be about the tumultuous thoughts which tumble around in her mind on a daily basis, and the effects which this has upon her life.

Merkin continually compares herself, at least at first, to others, and how her mindset stops her from being able to cope in the world.  In her introduction, she writes the following, which gives one an insight into how she sees herself, and her place within society: ‘Now you can no longer figure out what it is that moves other people to bustle about out there in the world, doing errands, rushing to appointments, picking up a child from school.  You have lost the thread that pulled the circumstances of your life together, nothing adds up and all you can think about is the new nerve of pain that your mind has become…’.

In the first chapter, Merkin writes of “Everywoman”, describing certain scenarios and obvious reactions to them.  After her creative and insightful passages which are written in this way, she posits herself, ‘of course’, as the person within the example which she gives, and then says, ‘but she might be anyone suffering from an affliction that haunts women almost twice as much as men, even though it is, curiously, mostly men who write about it.’  She goes on to say that the solidarity one finds when discovering that the “Everywoman” exists is comforting to her, as ‘there is solace in the knowledge that company can be found, even in the dark.’

Merkin discusses the difficulties of diagnosing mental illnesses, honing in on her own experiences with depression when she writes the following: ‘If there is something intangible about mental illness generally, depression is all the harder to define because it tends to creep in rather than announce itself, manifesting itself as an absence – of appetite, energy, sociability – rather than as a presence.’  She also talks quite candidly about her experience of writing such an account, and the length of time which it took – fifteen years in all – from a publisher first asking her to put down her own actuality onto paper, following an article which she wrote for the New York Times.  Her depression acted as a block in this process.  ‘The slaying of ghosts,’ writes Merkin, ‘is never easy, and my ghosts are particularly authoritative, reminding me to keep my head down and my saga to myself.’

I read This Close to Happy directly after finishing Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, which deals with the death of her daughter.  It proved a marvellous continuation in many ways; whilst Merkin and Didion have approached the topic of mental illness differently, and their prose styles are quite unlike one another’s, the continuation of themes certainly brought some cohesion to my reading.  In her introduction, as in Didion’s, Merkin discusses colour and its influence upon her moods, which was one of the most striking discussions within the book for me: ‘They come on, such suicidally colored periods, at times like this – I am writing this in the winter, at my desk in New York City – when the days are short, evening starts early, the sky lacks light, and you have ceased admiring your own efforts to keep going.  Although they can also come on when the day is long and the light never-ending, in early spring or ripest summer.’

Merkin demonstrates, through a series of memories and reflections upon her moods, that she can never be free of her depression, despite peaks in her life, and that she can be struck by symptoms at any point, without the slightest warning.  She examines her past to see whether being the child of Jewish-German immigrants of the Second World War generation altered her character, or whether she would have exhibited such feelings regardless.

This Close to Happy is not the easiest of books to read at times due to its content, but it is a determined and brave memoir, and one which I found very insightful.  To conclude, I admired the way in which Merkin includes rather startling facts about depression, which she prefaces some of her own experiences with.  For instance, 350 million people suffer with depression worldwide, and that, to me, is why books like this should be read by wide audiences; we all need to make an effort to understand one another in our chaotic world.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Long, Long Life of Trees’ by Fiona Stafford ****

Whilst it is a genre which I perhaps do not read much, I love nature writing, and Fiona Stafford’s The Long, Long Life of Trees felt to me like the perfect read.  Here, the Oxford University lecturer presents ‘a lyrical tribute to the diversity of trees, their physical beauty, their special characteristics and uses, and their ever-evolving meanings’.  I had never read a book which was purely about trees before I came to this one, aside from, I suppose, Sarah Maitland’s Gossip from the Forest.

9780300207330The book’s introduction is far-reaching, and Stafford’s passion for the natural world certainly shines through.  Each chapter focuses on one particular species of tree, from the yew and oak to the cherry and apple.  The historically rich pasts of the trees, and how they have been treated by humans throughout the ages, was striking.  I love her descriptions too; on describing the formation of the gardens at Cumbria’s Leven Hall in the 1690s, for instance, she writes that the topiary has ‘gradually grown into a looking-glass world of fantastic forms: giant top hats and helter-skelters, startled mushrooms and stacking rings, birds and beehives, pyramids and chess pieces, an evergreen tea party of cups, cones, dark doughnuts and irregular jellies’.

The breadth of Stafford’s research is breathtaking; she covers everything from the Renaissance to Sylvia Plath.  All of the photographs and illustrations which accompany each chapter were a lovely touch, and made for quite a delightful read.  The Long, Long Life of Trees is not a book which I absolutely adored and will find invaluable for the rest of my life, as I am sure others will, but I feel as though I have learnt a lot, and would definitely recommend it to green-fingered friends.

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‘Blue Nights’ by Joan Didion ****

I very much enjoyed Joan Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking when I read it a couple of years ago, but had strangely not sought out more of her work in the intervening months.  I finally requested a copy of the markedly poignant Blue Nights from the library, and ended up reading it in one sitting.

9780007432905The blurb of Blue Nights describes the way in which Didion has used writing as a tool to try and make sense of a traumatic event in her life; it is a work which displays ‘a stunning frankness about losing a daughter…  [It] examines her thoughts, fears, and doubts regarding loving children, illness, and growing old.’  Didion also uses Blue Nights in order to explore ‘her role as a parent… [and] asks the candid questions any parent might about how she feels she failed either because cues were not taken or perhaps displaced.’  The book proper begins in July 2010, on a date which would have marked her daughter’s wedding anniversary.

Quintana Roo, the adopted daughter of Didion and her husband, fell ill with a mysterious virus, and was soon in a coma.  Whilst very little – in fact, next to nothing – is written about this, or the process of Quintana’s death, Didion details, with an almost matter-of-factness, Quintana’s mental health as a young woman: ‘Of course they were eventually assigned names, a “diagnosis.”  The names kept changing.  Manic depression for example became OCD…  and obsessive-compulsive disorder became something else…’.  Eventually, it is pinpointed that Quintana suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder, its effects of which Didion captures in the most beautiful and startling way: ‘Her depths and shallows, her quicksilver changes.’

In her introductory chapter, Didion writes candidly about why she selected Blue Nights as the title of her memoir.  She says: ‘During the blue nights you think the end of the day will never come.  As the blue nights draw to a close (and they will, and they do) you experience an actual chill, an apprehension of illness, at the moment you first notice: the blue light is going, the days are already shortening, the summer is gone.  This book is called Blue Nights because at the time I began it I found my mind turning increasingly to illness, to the end of promise, the dwindling of the days, the inevitability of the fading, the dying of the brightness.’  Metaphorically, this fading of the summer is something upon which Didion is able to project feelings of her grief.  On a more base level, she feels blue without her daughter and husband, and the position of retrospect in which she is writing, as well as the death of two beloveds, unsurprisingly makes her mood drop all the more.

Throughout Blue Nights, Didion recalls a stream of memories from her life, of family and friends, and relates them to us using almost a stream-of-consciousness style.  For instance, she writes: ‘Time passes. / Memory fades, memory adjusts, memory conforms to what we think we remember.’  She is tough upon herself and past decisions which she has made in places, particularly when thinking about her daughter’s childhood: ‘She was already a person.  I could never afford to see that.’

Blue Nights is both a wonderful work of love, and a showcase of the heartbreak which Didion has gone through, after first the death of her husband, and then of her only daughter.  To those who are grieving, comfort can be found within its pages.  The ‘incisive and electric honesty’ which the blurb details can be found throughout; it feels as though Didion is writing as a form of self-therapy, using her voice to expel her doubts, and keep her memories of Quintana alive.  Blue Nights is searingly honest, and its non-linear style really gives a feel for how jumbled a mind with grief in can become.  Touching and sad, Blue Nights feels like a moving tribute to a lost daughter.

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‘The Snow Tourist: A Search for the World’s Purest, Deepest Snowfall’ by Charlie English ****

I had been itching to read The Snow Tourist: A Search for the World’s Purest, Deepest Snowfall by Charlie English since I purchased it back in August 2017.  I felt that it would be best saved until late Autumn as a seasonal read, and it proved the perfect tome to settle down with in the fading afternoon light of November.

9781846270642Metro calls The Snow Tourist a ‘wonder and a delight’, and Joanna Kavenna deems it ‘an enchanting tale of one man’s search for snow, a report on the precarious state of our extreme climates, an evocative poem to lost childhood winters…’.  Robert Macfarlane says that The Snow Tourist is ‘a finely written and many-sided account of the fascination – both fearful and loving – that we have for snow.’  Wanderlust compares English’s ‘easy-going narrative style’ to Bill Bryson’s, which endeared me to it even further.

In The Snow Tourist, Charlie English has travelled all over the world, over a period of a few years, to find snow.  He begins in his home city of London, and journeys to such places as Vermont, Austria, and the Inuit-inhabited lands of northern Canada.  English certainly has part of an old-fashioned explorer within him; he seems fascinated with everything he sees, and everyone he meets, despite the odd wobbles he encounters due to the extreme cold.

Of his choice to undertake the journeys detailed in The Snow Tourist, he writes: ‘every autumn now my thoughts return to snow.  Snow is something I identify myself with.  Like my father, I am a snow person.’  This inheritance, passed down from his father, is all the more important to English, as his father committed suicide when he was just ten years old.  English goes on to detail his hopes for his travels: ‘The expedition I decided upon one grey day in London consisted of a series of journeys linked by a single natural form – snow.  I would travel to the best snow in the world, discover how people lived with snow, and what they did with it.  As on previous expeditions, the principal objective would be the journey itself, the knowledge and experiences I would gather, and the people I would meet along the way.’

The Snow Tourist is filled with startling facts and conjectures.  English writes, for instance, that ‘someone once estimated that a million billion snow crystals were created around the earth every second, in a jumble of shapes and sizes, from simple hexagonal prisms to flat plates and many-footed stars.’  English also explores such things as the history of skiing.

English intersperses his travels, and writing about those whom he encounters, with memories of snow from his own childhood.  He remembers the following, rather touching moment: ‘A Super-8 film shows me and my brother being towed on the back of a sledge to a famous local hill, Granny’s Bump.  My father is in his wellington boots, red weekend trousers and Norwegian fisherman’s jumper.  My mother is wrapped in a long padded coat, with a woollen hat.  My brother and I wobble about on the sledge and fall off as they haul us along by a rope.  Watching it again now, these three flickering minutes give me a sense of warmth and loss, of nostalgie de la neige.’  Throughout, there is a near-perfect balance struck between facts and personal experience.

The Snow Tourist is engaging and fascinating from the outset, and English’s chatty yet informative prose style makes his book accessible to all.  The travelogue is reflective yet up to the minute, detailing the effects which climate change has had upon some of the snowiest places on earth, and how rapidly the snowfall which some of us live with for many months of the year is beginning to melt way ahead of expected time.  There is an awareness throughout of ways in which snow is changing, and how this affects different cultures which rely upon it.  A lot of historical detail has also been included – for instance, the history of Western snow science.  The ‘Dictionary of Snow’ included as an appendix is a lovely touch, and provides a lot of interesting facts to retain, as well as a slew of different words for different kinds of snow.

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‘Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions’ by Valeria Luiselli ****

The concept of Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions intrigued me.  Luiselli, herself a Mexican living in New York, has aimed to look at immigration into the United States, and its effects on the many children who undergo a gruelling, and often unsuccessful, trafficking process each year.  Tell Me How It Ends was originally written in English as a shorter essay, and lengthened when Luiselli decided to translate it into Spanish.

The book’s blurb states: ‘In this urgent, haunting, exquisitely written book, the questions 9780008271923asked by Valeria Luiselli are her own, her children’s, and those she finds drawn up on the questionnaire drawn up by immigration attorneys for the tens of thousands of Central American children who arrive in the United States each year after being smuggled across Mexico to the US border.’  Luiselli herself worked as a voluntary interpreter in a New York immigration court, and thus has first hand experience of learning what the children whom she speaks to have already been through in their short lives.  Her task is a relatively simple one; she follows what is written on the questionnaire, and translates the children’s stories from Spanish to English, to later present to the court dealing with individual immigration cases.  She writes: ‘The children’s stories are always shuffled, stuttered, always shattered beyond the repair of a narrative order.  The problem with trying to tell their story is that it has no beginning, no middle, and no end.’  In her introductory chapter, Luiselli informs us that ‘there are no answers, only more questions’ with an exploration of this kind.

Interspersed with the stories of those whom she meets, Luiselli tells of her own experiences, as she and her family are deemed ‘non-residential aliens’ in the United States.  They decide to apply for green cards, which, if granted, will make them US citizens.  She discusses the process, which sounds draining by any form-filling standards, and its immediate aftermath: ‘When we finally sent out our applications… we started feeling strange, somewhat out of place, a little circumspect – as if throwing that envelope in the blue mailbox on our street corner had changed something in us.’  They decide to set off on a roadtrip soon afterwards, and their journey soon converges with the refugee crisis reaching its peak: ‘We start hunting down any available information about the undocumented children and the situation at the border, we collect local newspapers, which pile on the floor of our car, in front of my copilot seat.  We do constant, quick online searches and tune in to the radio every time we can catch a signal.’

The structure within Tell Me How It Ends is fitting.  Luiselli has approached her central question – what will happen to immigrant children when they reach the United States? – by focusing on forty separate, but interrelated questions or points.  Each of these questions forms the immigration questionnaire.

Luiselli’s account and exploration is a measured one.  Throughout, she talks of opinions expressed by different groups inside America, some of whom deem the refugee crisis ‘a biblical plague’, going on to mock how ridiculous their view of innocent children as a widespread threat to their way of life is: ‘Beware the locusts!  They will cover the face of the ground so that it cannot be seen – those menacing, coffee-coloured boys and girls, with their obsidian hair and slant eyes.  They will fall from the skies, on our cars, on our green lawns, on our heads, on our schools, on our Sundays’.  She balances this with those who welcome the children with open arms, going out of their way to help their plight.

Some of the facts which Luiselli presents are shocking; for instance, ‘eighty percent of the women and girls who cross Mexico to get to the U.S. border are raped on the way’, and that during six months of 2010, there were more than 11,000 abductions during the journey.  Between April 2014 and August 2015, she tells us, ‘more than 102,000 unaccompanied children had been detained at the border’, which demonstrates starkly how widespread this problem is.  Throughout, Luiselli recognises the individuality of each child, and each case: ‘Each child comes from a different place, a separate life, a distinct set of experiences, but their stories usually follow the same predictable, fucked-up plot.’

Tell Me How It Ends is topical and important; a really moving and meaningful piece of reportage.  It demonstrates just how widespread the plight of many Central Americans is, and how they are willing to risk almost everything to find what they perceive will be a better life in the United States.  Luiselli’s account is poignant and searching, and as lucid as it is contemplative.  Her position as interpreter gives her voice authority, as does the way in which she approaches the issue of immigration.  She is highly, wholly empathetic to every child whom she meets, and everything which she presents is sensitively wrought.  There is an awful lot of depth within Tell Me How It Ends, and it is both a thought-provoking and unsettling read.

I shall end this review with rather a fitting quote from Luiselli, after many of the cases which she writes about have been explored: ‘In the meantime, while the story continues, the only thing to do is tell it over and over again as it develops, bifurcates, knots around itself.  And it must be told, because before anything can be understood, it has to be narrated many times, in many different words and from many different angles, by many different minds.’

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Reading the World: Wrap-Up

This post marks the end of my 2017 Reading the World Project.  When setting out what I wanted to achieve with this particular challenge, I wrote that I wanted to consciously choose and review works of translated literature.  I thought that a structure such as the one which I came up with would allow me to continue with my project throughout the year, without reaching that mid-July slump that I invariably get with reading challenges.  I am pleased to report that I have found the exercise thoroughly successful, and have discovered some new gems, and some little-reviewed tomes too.

Without further ado, I thought that it would be nice to have a wrap-up post to show the best of the books which I read for this challenge, as well as to tot up the numbers of distinct languages which I chose to include.  For this project, I wrote forty-six original reviews, and also included six from the archive.

My top ten picks in translation:

  1. Gilgi, One of Us by Irmgard Keun (German) 9780099561378
  2. The Leech by Cora Sandel (Norwegian)
  3. Fire in the Blood by Irene Nemirovsky (French)
  4. The Life of Rebecca Jones by Angharad Price (Welsh)
  5. Les Enfants Terribles by Jean Cocteau (French)
  6. Strait is the Gate by Andre Gide (French)
  7. The Immoralist by Andre Gide (French)
  8. Poor Folk by Fyodor Dostoevsky (Russian)
  9. Art in Nature and Other Stories by Tove Jansson (Finnish)
  10. The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa (Japanese)

 

Language breakdown by number of books read (I think one can say that I like French literature!):

  1. French: 15
  2. Korean: 4
  3. Norwegian: 4 9780956308696
  4. Russian: 4
  5. Finnish: 3
  6. Austrian German: 2
  7. Dutch: 2
  8. German: 2
  9. Spanish: 2
  10. Swedish: 2
  11. Japanese: 3
  12. Argentinian Spanish: 1
  13. Chinese: 1
  14. Danish: 1
  15. Hungarian: 1
  16. Icelandic: 1
  17. Kannada: 1
  18. Portuguese: 1
  19. Turkish: 1
  20. Welsh: 1

 

I have also discovered some wonderful new authors whilst reading for this project.  They include Clarice Lispector, Cora Sandel, Irmgard Keun, Annie Ernaux, Samanta Schweblin, Angharad Price, Jean Cocteau, George Sand, Andre Gide, and Albert Camus.

For a full list of my 2017 Reading the World books, as well as links to their reviews, please visit this page.  Please let me know which of these books you’ve read, and which review has been your favourite.

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A Month of Favourites: ‘In Cold Blood’ by Truman Capote

The Spectator describes the book as ‘The American dream turning into the American nightmare…  a remarkable book’, and its blurb heralds it ‘a seminal work of modern prose, a remarkable synthesis of journalistic skill and powerfully evocative narrative’.

Published in 1966 and dedicated to Jack Dunphy and Harper Lee with Capote’s ‘love and gratitude’, In Cold Blood is ‘controversial and compelling’.  It ‘reconstructs the murder in 1959 of a Kansas farmer, his wife and children.  Truman Capote’s comprehensive study of the killings and subsequent investigation explores the circumstances surrounding this terrible crime, as well as the effects which it had on those involved.  At the centre of his study are the amoral young killers Perry Smith and Dick Hickok, who, vividly drawn by Capote, are shown to be reprehensible, yet entirely and frighteningly human’.  All of the material which Capote says is ‘not derived from my own observation’ is taken from official records and interviews ‘conducted over a considerable period of time’.9780141182575

Capote masterfully sets the scene and tone of the whole from the outset: ‘The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there”.  Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clean air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West.  The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang…  and the men, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointed toes’.  Holcomb itself is described as ‘an aimless congregation of buildings divided in the centre by the main-line tracks of the Santa Fe Railroad…  After rain, or when snowfalls thaw, the streets, unnamed, unshaded, unpaved, turn from the thickest dust into the driest mud’.

As in his fiction, his depiction and control of every single scene is gripping and vivid.  This is particularly true when he describes the event which was to shake the entire community: ‘But then, in the earliest hours of the morning in November, a Sunday morning, certain foreign sounds impinged on the normal nightly Holcomb noises – on the keening hysteria of coyotes, the dry scrape of scuttling tumbleweed, the racing, receding wail of locomotive whistles.  At the time, not a soul in sleeping Holcomb heard them – four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives.  But afterwards the townspeople, theretofore sufficiently unfearful of each other to seldom trouble to lock their doors, found fantasy recreating them over and again – those sombre explosions that stimulated fires of mistrust in the glare of which many old neighbours viewed each other strangely, and as strangers’.

The Clutter family – Herbert and Bonnie, and the youngest of their four children, sixteen-year-old Nancy and fourteen-year-old Kenyon – are the victims, all of whom were tied up and shot at close range in their home in 1959.  Descended from German immigrants who moved to Kansas in 1880, they were a prominent and well-respected family in the area, and all were profoundly shocked at their murder: ‘Feeling wouldn’t run half so high if this had happened to anyone except the Clutters.  Anyone less admired.  Prosperous.  Secure.  But that family represented everything people hereabouts really value and respect, and that such a thing could happen to them – well, it’s like being told there is no God.  It makes life seem pointless.  I don’t think people are so much frightened as they are deeply depressed’.  The peripheral characters which Capote makes use of, both in terms of testimony and as part of his beautifully prosaic telling of the murders, are wonderfully and strikingly described.  Local postmistress Myrtle Clare, for example, is ‘a gaunt trouser-wearing, woollen-shirted, cowboy-booted, ginger-coloured, gingery-tempered woman of unrevealed age… but promptly revealed opinions, most of which are announced in a voice of rooster-crow altitude and penetration’.

The rendering of the Clutters’ story is incredibly powerful and resonant, and has been so well sculpted.  Capote has been incredibly clever in that he follows both the victims and the perpetrators, explaining their pasts and the motives of the killers.  He is almost compassionate towards Perry Smith, and this gives an interesting and memorable slant to the whole.  In Cold Blood is distinctly Capote’s work; it rings with such understanding of those involved, without exception.  Real depth has been given to the whole, and it feels as though the reader is watching events unfold when they happen, rather from the position of retrospect.  In Cold Blood is a compelling and important piece of non-fiction, and it has made its way straight onto my favourites list.

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